Thursday, January 09, 2014

Christians send death threats to Syrian bishop on YouTube Christian bishop who left Syria for Austria may have a hard time returning. He has been accused of treachery and received death threats on the web. 

These acts of intimidation did not come from the cut-throats of some extremist sect but from members of his own flock.

Eustatius Matta Roham, the Syro-Orthodox Metropolitan of Jazirah and Euphrates in Syrian Mesopotamia has been out of the country for over a year and is currently in Vienna. 

A few days before Christmas, a commando of hooded men stormed the metropolitan see in Qamishli and filmed themselves expressing their opposition to the prelate. 

The video was then published on YouTube.

Everything about the video – the language and tone of voice used and the men’s postures – is reminiscent of the kind of video terrorists make to announce their revenge. 

The video shows the group’s members reading out a statement introducing themselves as spokesmen of the Christian people and accusing the bishop of escaping, leaving his people behind to suffer and be the target of threats. 

They call upon Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas to have the fugitive bishop removed and replaced. They then call for traitors to die, pulling photos of Rohan off the walls, stamping all over them and hurling insults at portraits of the Patriarch and President Assad.

It is hard to assess the substance of these threats but the video depicts some unusual dynamics which reflect the suffering and complex situation in which many Christian communities in Syria are living as a result of the conflict.

The North Eastern part of Syria, where the province of Jazira is situated, is where Kurdish militia – in tacit agreement with the loyalist army - began the counter-attack against Jihadist-dominated rebel groups some time ago. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) responded mainly by carrying out suicide attacks in Qamishli.

Other rebel brigades such as Ansar al-Khilafah have recently been taking action. As the number of these groups has spread, Christians have also got involved: Sootoro, one of the self defence groups set up by locals has many young Assyrian Christian members. They defend their own settlements without relying on protection from Kurdish militia or the regular army.

Officially, some representatives of the Syrian Christian community have taken a neutral position in the Syrian conflict. But at least some of the groups that see Sootoro as a reference point also see Assad as an objective ally unlike the feared jihadist groups.

Catholic communities are far less exposed to the temptation of a direct involvement in the conflict. “The Church cannot point anyone down the path of arms and violence as it goes against the teaching of the Gospel,” the Syro-Catholic archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, titular of the eparchy of Hassakè-Nisibi, said in a statement recently. 

“The government offered me 700 Kalashnikovs to hand out Hassakè’s Christians last year and another thousand to Christians in Qamishli, but I refused. We oppose violence, regardless of what side it comes from.” 

The Syrian tragedy seems destined to leave behind deep wounds even within the Christian communities, as the threats against Syro-Orthodox bishop Roham show.

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